Swan river flows along a path never intended for human feet. A larger river, two hundred miles long, called “French,” is what Swan leads to. Ground is first broke in the eighteenth century along Christian Creek, a tributary of Swan river by David, a soldier redeeming a land grant at the point where the water “English” and the water “French” meet.
The forest kills the soldier. There are rumors of humans – not of Christ, but of Nature instead. On foot, the soldier's wife, children, and female slave flee sixteen miles to the nearest Christian fort. The soldier's brother and his sister's husband return for justice and the corpse. Months pass in the forest. The wife, children, and female slave return, and the extended family arrive to settle at the mouth of Bee Tree.
War breaks. Union forces are pushed away to the north by a platoon of mostly locals.
Union forces return.
On October second, eighteen eighty, a railroad reaches the city of Ashe. On November twentieth, nineteen thirty, eight of the nine local banks fail. Only Wachovia remains due to infusions of cash from other sources. Though Ashe owes fifty million due to the building of roads and buildings, Ashe refuses to default, then remains impoverished. Everything is properly preserved for fifty years before the debt is finally paid in full.
“Even a class A,” he says. “Of course I cannot compete with your previous pay,” the store manager says, interviewing me in the newspaper, books, and magazine section of a coffee house surrounded by a grocery store.
“No, of course.”
Despite the high-turnover rate, most employees have worked here at least a decade. I only have four actual coworkers. We are called the Milk Men. I have been working mostly on my own but for Wally, a likeable, jolly oddity with gray hair and glasses. He's worked here twenty-seven years and works a part time job in fast food to make ends meet. This shift works three sections: milk, eggs, and juice, in that order of importance, each section taking an hour or two of work. Other sections are only done once a day each.
Larke, a twenty-one-year-old, works nights in Video. “He graduated high school in two-thousand six and went straight into the Marines,” he says. “In the winter of two thousand seven we showed up for his graduation at Paris Island, South Carolina. I busted my hand in with the lid of the trunk of our car … I stood there for a long time with it closed and my hand crushed because I didn't want to break my fingers. They took me to the Military hospital and I was refused treatment because I was civilian. My brother had been promoted to Lance Corporal and we thought he'd be promoted again at graduation but instead they gave it to some fat chick who had been recycled three times – she had more time in service. My brother was the platoon – or whatever – leader throughout boot camp because he was that kind of guy, a hard worker, then staying up til four and five in the morning to return letters. He would be fired from his position regularly – usually in time for the weekend, when they would give it to someone else for awhile, but by Monday he had it again. I remember him giving me a tour of the barracks and another graduating marine was there. A Drill Instructor stepped in and the marine kept referring to himself as “This recruit.” The Drill Instructor had to tell him he was graduated now. It scared me, him being brainwashed like that.”
The harsh, beautiful girl runs the mid-level bureaucracy of the school in a building of waiting rooms. Where professors, deans, and department heads are not required, she is, to a population of students who truly believe. There are posters of “cool” nerds, and “jock” computer analysts throughout the school, even billboards out on the highway implying that those in school have made a conscious choice to be an American with a future. When I took the school's placement exams, it took me an extra hour and a half. The harsh, beautiful girl kept standing outside the glass room of computers, looking in with an expression of concern on her face.
As I register for classes, I know the clerk helping me is “Wilton” gay, not because he is overweight and competitive – even down to what kind of books I like – but because of how he is measuring me up. He is kind as he registers me for my classes but also employs a conversational technique where certain, “intellectuals-only,” words are dropped. I bet he was once shy, then became a control-freak-with-a-personality, now he's in college and his strategy cannot take me walking into the room.
I run into her at the downtown library, where the homeless pretend to be studious while Ashe's newest arrivals use the internet. She has moved here.
“Not because of you,” she says as her fingers trail the book bindings of the library shelves. “Work. I didn't know you had set up here.”
“I can't remember what it was that you did.”
She gives me a look.
“You're good at it,” she says. “Running into people.”
Montana is an obvious burner – promotion-wise.
“You're too young to be this much of a mess,” I tell him.
The truth of him is that he's devastated; he's really happy all the time because he's good at it, he's too genuine to know how else to be. He demands to be happy in each and every moment and the place he demands it from is the place no one can reach.
“He likes you,” the night manager says. “He said it was like talking to a dictionary.”
“Yeah, I like him a lot.”
“He has a temper,” she says.
I watched part of a documentary once where a female director had filmed a script similar to “American Pie,” except the genders had been switched and the writings were kept realistic. “No distributors,” the director said. Though only twenty-three, the night manager knows these women like the back of her hand. She seems to know that I have never met such women. It is why she is a better storyteller. While knowing nothing of my past she seems to know Grace must've been a good woman even at an age where that remained impossible.
She also works across the street from the grocery at an Italian Restaurant, different because it is all from scratch, but good. Somehow everyone knows my name but I already knew them before I realized she worked here. They have a familial environment like they want to be a home for art.
“Don't fall asleep at that bar,” she says as she wipes tables against the large french doors open onto the street.
I awaken, not realizing I was watching her. She had paused a moment and looked out the doors into the lights, buildings, and concrete, a tray held up in the flat of her hand.
“You almost looked Italian, there.” I reply.
“What does that mean?” she says.
Montana's eyes are blue, probably, maybe green, or hazel, hard to tell, they are so quick and bright, causing one to stare. They are set into the hollows of his eye sockets, making the eyes seem large. His face is pronounced and clear as if his skin was thin and his bones muscular. His hair is blonde but maybe brown, giving it a gray affect, matching the dark half-circles under his eyes.
“I got my G-E-D after I got back.”
“How'd you join the military,” he says as he finishes pushing a row of four carts into a line with the rest of them. The night is damp, but not cold. He saves one cart to put the full trash bags in as he empties the cans in front of the grocery store.
“At first they didn't accept what I'd been using as documents to get by,” I finally answer. “The recruiter rejected the paperwork. I had to find a – what is it called, those people who make documents official – a notary – who would stamp it.”
In the chow hall of Rustic, a film plays to no one.
Antony Hopkins must hint toward his employer's soon-to-be-married, but father-less, godson that sex exists.
“With the arrival of spring . . . ” Antony Hopkins says to Hugh Grant. “We shall see a remarkable and profound change in all surroundings.”
I walk the straight, center way through the maze of hedges as a black bear lifts itself into an industrial trash bin to my left, on the other side of moonlit forest green. Her cub must be somewhere.
Inside the girl's dormitory Magic Mike plays on the television as I await paperwork for Brick.
Brick arrived at Rustic the day after me. So far we rarely if ever speak to each other; both of us know we have that little in common. He is all natural, incapable of wrongdoing, even after he has done enough wrong things to end up here. He looks like that guy from John Tucker Must Die, only Caucasian. His selfishness is the same as mine. Due to who he is, his is worse, uglier, less forgivable. While my path has been outside Rustic, his has led into his becoming a house manager and part of the staff, which puts us as the two most powerful members of our original “preppie” group, living in two different sides of Rustic's world. We are both oddly alone because no else at Rustic has been such a burner as he, and no one else at Rustic works full time while going to college. Once, while we were preppies, we found the valley of the five train-tunnels, then got lost trying to reach the group of preppies we had ducked out of. At the time I was embarrassed, not afraid to climb mountains trying to reach the group, while Brick found an easier path. It was clear to me that he had somehow lived his life without stepping out of a certain state of human dignity. At least that seems to be my reason for not saying much to him. I had my path set in my head before either me or Brick even knew it was possible to be promoted to positions like “house manager.” I wanted to stay away from being pulled into Brick's early-rising path. We're not competitive, but actually are, because we have so little in common we can see each other. Him being around reminded me of ways I had forgotten I had.
On Charlie Rose at some point, as I walk the aisles of the college library:
“... these families of artists incidentally creating … “
says some sort of director.
Though he is seventeen Montana keeps calling her his fiance. As we cashier and bag groceries I lecture him on the temple of marriage – it can only stand by way of two, equally powerful, separate columns. Her coming by the grocery is a rarity, so quick he points her out to me.
“Montana, that is not a wife, that's a teenage girl.”
“She's nineteen,” he says in defense.
Early as dawn is about to break, I half sleep on my bag against the backseat of Rustic's sixteen passenger van. We are all on our way somewhere, but I do not mind being last because everyone allows me the back to sleep.
This time, one of my favorite people here, River, drives while telling an angry story over classic rock. “If I wanted to do that I'd just take my big dick to the bathroom and jerk the fuck off ...”
He has said this in front of the morning staff meeting. Again, a girl from the other dormitory has been caught trying to send him a letter.
River is obvious, classic, a dynamic storyteller because upon being confronted by the staff he took the opportunity not only to win, but stick up for others here especially concerning present “drama.” Like when a roommate of mine advised a virgin, groom-to-be, “Just FUCK it.” I laughed.
Even if River's antics were only to further put the image in the girls' minds, he is everything an addict is supposed to be. Hence, they keep him around staff meetings.
Brick and I sit in the van alone as River is filling her up with gas.
Recently I rid myself of an unwanted roommate controversially. The roommate was military, my age, who enjoyed his times with me – only I had to prepare myself using narcotics. I dealt with him the way I've learned from every Sergeant I've ever met: quickly, spontaneously, slowly, smoothly going through the subject matters of conversation, honing in on true character. One morning he showed himself again by slipping that he knew my unit of deployment, though I had never said down to platoon and squad – some guys in the military like to make the point of the kind of contacts they have. Some soldiers deal with the dick-measurers and some do not. Royal would have, because he could compete at anything; I do not because I find the concept in my opponent's head to be unmasculine. He realized his mistake, recovered, and left shortly. By the end of the day, I had a slide show of shirtless guys as my laptop's screen-saver and the roommate was gone within the week. Brick would find my actions … disrespectful.
There are people on dates in and out of the station, on their way to parties or clubs. The guys wear purposely-name-brand attire. “Like they're wearing redneck 'costumes,'” I say.
Thirty seconds later Brick busts out laughing. “It is like they're wearing redneck costumes.”
“It's music he jammed while coming off of Lithium,” River is saying as he drives through the night. I sit shotgun.
“Why are you here,” he asks me.
“I turned out to be someone else.”
“Maybe who you were intended to be is better than the one you wanted to be,” he says, accelerating onto the interstate.
“Your brainwashing is developing nicely.”
He puts on more music as we leave Ashe toward the outskirts and the mountains.
“It's like he's saying male frustration is a legitimate emotional state even if it does not exist within society's structure,” I tell him.
“Who knew you were a rock and roller,” he says.
As we arrive back at Rustic he is saying lowly, trying to explain his malfunction: “No matter what I do.”
“Drugs or no drugs … “
“I don't know,” he says. “It's like my mind keeps going over the bad stuff I've done … “
Inside, Nerube motions for me from the reception desk, then hands me the phone.
It is Irby, from Second Platoon:
I look at the floor.
“Just college and work, work and college.”
“Oh, yeah. When'd you get out?”
“Been out one year, November.”
“Isn't it something to be out of the military?”
“Thank you for coming in, gentlemen,” Jack, played by Alec Baldwin, says as 30 Rock plays from the television just inside the open window. “I look forward to discovering exactly what each of you has to offer Zarina that I do not. I know she has a sex idiot for uninhibited experimentation … A filthy hippie to make her feel bohemian … Someone to make her parents angry … a mean wall street type … the perfect head of hair … You must be Ken tremendous … We've covered all the classic boyfriend archetypes … Except the father figure … where is that guy, am I right? The one who falls asleep at the opera, and doesn't notice that she's texting her real boyfriend from his bed … ”
As we work in video, Larke and I argue concerning Daniel Day Lewis's portrayal of Lincoln. I am appalled.
“He played the role with historical accuracy despite becoming unpopular for it,” he says.
“His portrayal – has nothing – it's – I don't believe it – I don't want to look at American history with symbolism.”
Maybe I've been back to the same therapist, maybe I haven't, either way Ashe is a small town, somehow, I see everyone I've already met at the grocery store, regular, though in a professional manner.
“If you can't beat them join them,” she always seemed to be telling me. “They are literally incapable,” she says. “They know not what they do – and never will.” It was only her expression that haunted me, not the words, laden with Psychology. “They will assume you are damaged goods because they have never been in your position.”
Rehab is a huge secret.
I navigate by making the van drop me off at the corner.
Meanwhile the mountain downtown is full of Christmas lights, carefully put up by Rustic's men every year, due to an agreement between Rustic and Ashe. As I step outside the grocery store and walk the side walks, we pretend not to know each other, all kind nods, and hellos.
Though the night-manager and Larke and I have become close friends over regular midnight cigarettes, Larke wants to move to Chicago. “To learn comedy,” he says.
“Is that a thing ...”
“It's where you learn the biz,” he replies as the exhausted night-manager fiddles with the music from her cell phone. Taylor Swift. Miley Cyrus. The Gorilla's “Feel Good, Inc.,” finally.
“NBC has sent several members of the cast of Saturday Night Live's cast there to prepare them for their debut,” Larke says in his cultured way.
Everything about him is a statement: from his brown professor's spectacles to his orange not-quite-moccasins. His reputation concerns his literary prowess and the fact that he will ask any girl out, anywhere, anytime. He changes his mind about pulling on his old fashioned tobacco pipe – a birthday gift from one his several shockingly-wealthy, former schoolmates. In the store he will find them embarrassing because none of them have ever been in the work force and find our colorful language and conversation intolerable. I once made the mistake of saying Ashe's best Italian restaurants are to be found in Ashe's mostly-Italian neighborhood. “You can live like this,” he says. “Because you know who you are.”
I failed an important course in school, Human Anatomy and Physiology, BIO168, so important to my field that I should take a full semester to learn it, the professor would have more to say, more questions would be asked by students. I'll have to pay for the course in cash because the Pell Grant does not cover failed classes. I have another prerequisite mini-mester starting in a few weeks – Sociology. My work friends are proud of me; they ask about school or how I did on such and such test, I lie and say, “Fine.” My friends at Rustic roll their eyes and laugh when I say I am struggling as if it were not possible: “So you're getting a ninety-eight instead of a hundred?”
Over the holidays I was surprised to be there, them surprised to see me. They call me “Seldom Seen.”
I keep trying to tell him how kismet it seemed that all the times I had been on a plane it had been this plane, flown by him, always going to the Florida homestead. Despite the environment I cannot say this to Ray as he pilots beside me because I know it is not true.
I stay at Grandma and Grandpa's homestead for weeks, awakening each morning to feed and water the animals and plants, warm the stove, start the coffee, then pick ripe fruits and flowers before stepping into their royal court to make sure they are awake and have made it to their thrones on a stage at the end of a long, red carpet. While Grandma samples a tray of nearby perfumes and inspects the freshly cut flowers to her right, Grandpa keeps trying to tell me, “He thinks you have no love.”
Each night I work as a milkman at the grocery except it is the huge building and parking lot of the general store of my adolescence. Inside are all the female relatives, each wearing carefully chosen outfits under their aprons and not-quite-blonde versions of brunette hairstyles. To my relief they pretend not to know me, turning up their expressions and spinning away like actresses doing ballet as a celebration begins in the parking lot full of amusement park events, whole buildings made of air-filled plastic, employees, and large groups of children attended by chaperones. Tonight as Ray flies me to work in the dust-cropper-sized plane, he is suddenly gone, the full moon my only source of light while the plane glides toward the ground in smaller and smaller circles.
Though the dash of the plane is of a worn Eighties sports car I glide one circle after another, frightened to land with no power. The plane hits the parking lot like a car swinging into a parking space. Angry and haughty for the interruption, both sisters and Aunt Karen are waiting as I exit the plane, flush with good luck and sudden accomplishment. I keep trying to explain how I managed all the way to the ground without taking anyone out, nor poking any of the buildings with my wings.
I wake soaked in sweat despite the cool air of an open window, shower, and catch the van to the downtown grocery.
At the back of the store, sneaking a cigarette, Montana finds me, hot with anger, trying to explain to me how he his yearly evaluation keeps being delayed now that it has come out that most other employees have been started out at a much higher wage than what he makes, despite his being promoted, work-wise, long past them.
“It is my fault,” I tell him. “I encouraged performance without telling you to protect yourself.”
“You didn't go to high-school,” he says loudly, trying to get me to understand that he is not naive. “It's been like this all along – principals, teachers, coaches giving preference to some, shitting on others, one story coming out after another. It will never change.”
Near end of shift I smoke a cigarette with the night manager while walking her to her old Camry, lost in thought.
“You come across to me like some sort of retired human being,” she says.
“First of all,” Isaac says, his voice, smooth and loud with an almost-deepness that might sound like certainty. “Why you like that; why not walk into a room with a little aggression.”
“Aggression,” I say.
He always seems to be playing the best music, most of which I've never heard. “It's because it's the music you've been listening to your whole life,” he is saying.
“Thing is,” Isaac says later, as we are sitting around his dining table over dice being rolled. His wife and five children are already asleep in rooms down a dark hallway.
I met Isaac by accident, not realizing that Daniel already knew his neighbors. “Never seen a redneck Latino before,” I said to Daniel. “He's Native American,” Daniel replied.
“You're liable to pull in a hot babe, maybe a knockout,” Isaac continues.
I blush. Ashley, Daniel's half-Native friend laughs. She looks like every young girl who ever served me food in Oklahoma. We are all of similar ages. Ashley has had major surgeries concerning Scoliosis since she was four but one could never tell. Isaac finds Daniel to be one of his best friends.
“As I understand it this is a tribe and you're the tribal leader … “ I say.
“Okay!” Isaac exclaims with a laugh. “First, let's drink on that.”
“It's comments like that--” he continues, but then Ashley and Daniel laugh, so he laughs too, rich and laid back.
I rise just as Isaac rises to get another beer. I hand one to Isaac in his dark kitchen lit by the refrigerator.
“Have I ever offended you,” Isaac says quietly.
“No,” I reply. “I doubt it.”
“You keep secrets.”
Outside, Ashley smokes alone. “Pain,” she tells me. “It got old. Made the future seem impossible and kept me – angry.” She pulls on her cigarette, looking out across the night sky from Isaac's front porch, her silhouette tall and defiant. “So when I was fifteen I flushed my useless meds and began a – drug phase.”
Inside, they are talking about “The Green Mile,” a film I still have not gotten all the way through. “The gay guy … “ I ask.
“The French actor,” Ashley says.
“No, the one who kills the mouse.”
“Oh, he's not gay,” she replies with an inquisitive laugh.
“I'm turning into a Wilton,” I say, leaning Charlie Brown.
Isaac laughs. Then turns to Daniel, “Homosexuality?”
“Googled,” I reply. “But I had to click next a lot of times.”
“Really,” asks Daniel.
“Cause all the sites were on how to go from GAY to Straight.”
Later, Isaac and I are smoking cigarettes outside alone.
“You always manage to be in the shadows,” Isaac says. “What you a coywolf --”
Montana was cut awhile back and can do little about it but find a second job.
I am to make a decision – either open my availability all the way and accept an “official” full-time job, or keep accepting only twenty-hours a week, instead of forty. The hours were cut due to “Obama Care,” says the manager.
“Do I agree as a manager that a person who is in a situation with a parent or kids who needs health insurance should therefore be given the full time slot as opposed to the person who earned it?” he says. “And now that person must scrape by on only twenty-eight hours? No.”
“You think God isn't doing what is best for your life?” Nerube asks with that smile that looks both mischievous and over confident. He looks the opposite of whom he truly is, so I never really met him until we realized we both new Irby. Others here comment to Nerube that Seldom Seen lights up and acts completely different if I'm talking to him. Nerube likes to try to explain to me who I am to them.
“Just because there is a God does not mean he is good,” I reply.
Nerube tells me his life as if nothing has ever gone wrong and he is just as good as everyone. I tell him he could get away with the whole thing if maybe he changed on the inside, like how Matt Damon looks into a dresser's mirror with the look of a football quarterback as he plays The Talented Mr. Ripley.
“The changes may be painful, worrisome, and a lot of trouble,” he says. “But he is doing his best for you always.”
“Lincoln was super gay,” Jack says.
“Thank you,” says Liz Lemon.
“And I don't even want to think about my mother.”
But I don't think I should help anymore,” one genius alien – semi-human with blue skin – says to another genius alien – a slime covered semi-caterpillar, in the animated film, “Escape from Planet Earth,” 2013. They are about to attempt escape from Area 51 where they are being forced to invent things like the internet, high definition television, smart phones – and the most powerful weapon in the universe. The non-geniuses have been frozen alive and are kept in storage.
“Are you getting paranoid?” replies the semi-caterpillar. “It happens to the best of us. You're really smart, then you start thinking too much, then you start getting paranoid –”
A group of teenage boys who work at the store have seemed over-concerned about my social status. Within the group, status changes constantly for a myriad of irrelevant reasons. I ignore them despite their offers of friendship because they are all actually in their twenties, so their voices and body language come across as bizarre, but mostly sad.
Finally, as Montana is helping me block dairy, one of their members accosts me, slyly talking locker-room while mentioning as many of my friends as possible. He looks like a tall, brunette elf, and has the reputation for saying “Word on the street is … “ regularly as if he is the word on the street due to his unceasing gossiping and text-messaging.
I turn away from my work and tell him “I'm African-American, dyslexic, homosexual, and illiterate. You got some sort of problem with that?”
Apparently the last sentence is heard six aisles down by the night-manager, not to mention's Montana's laugh, so she splits us up. I cashier while Montana bags. He talks about the show “New Girl” due to Zooey Deschanel, which airs on Fox. He doesn't watch “The Mindy Project” though it comes on right after and the protagonists' attitudes and situations are similar.
“If I wanted to watch a gay-bashing feminist, I'd turn on 30Rock,” I tell him.
“New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” have been guilty pleasures of mine, even becoming appointment television on Tuesday nights. “New Girl” has great talent that has been barely-saving terrible writing for years, while “Mindy”'s writing is so strong it infringes on the actors' talents. No comedy or drama writer would work for a network with no journalism around; it would be a dead-end job, so Fox is out of the question as far a network to pay attention to. It is why an unprecedented show like “The Good Wife” appears on CBS.
I want to explain these things to Montana, so when he watches the same shows as me he can see and hear the things that I see, but instead an ocean remains between us with islands slowly moving apart over thousands of years.
“It's snowing under a clear sky ...” I ask her.
“That's the snow coming off the mountain peaks,” she says. “It'll be like this as long as there's wind.”
After turning away from the buffet toward the open counter of the kitchen, I wait for Rustic's real-world-powerful chef to add desert to my tray. I notice his tears as he looks at me.
“I don't understand,” I say to him.
“Only it is the extraordinary change,” he replies. “It is like mourning.”
“Yes,” I tell him, turning my head to look out the windows all around. “It is the mornings that are so great.”
“Thing is, Brick,” I tell him, sitting in the house manager's office, across from his desk.
“I'm thirty-one,” he says.
“I haven't done anything wrong yet.”
There is a pause.
“Don't you know by now how you ended up here?” he asks, as if he's trying to change subjects, or tact.
“It was the right thing to do,” I say suddenly official. “Otherwise every moment would've been sexualized against me and I'd have to fight because there is no God, Nature has no fortifications, and the bad win, while children reason that they are monsters because only they can see the verses, not because they are now the poorest in the race.”
He is speechless while I stare at him like some Civil War ghost who happened upon him, wondering how it is Brick is blocking my line of sight.
“When I saved my life I ruined it, I mean,” I tell him. “If that's what you're asking.”
“I don't understand how it was you were honorably dis--”
“--There were no acts of cowardice-- holy shit, Brick.”
“What about school? I mean--”
“I already know that to see clearly one must respect life all the way,” I tell him. “And you hold on to that, you hold on, even though now that you're holding, you see disrespect all around.”
“Thing is about today,” he says. “Your strategy. Like an addict handling a secret overdose.”
There is a pause.
“Thing about history,” I tell him. “The idea of an heir, a good son.”
“Only there is no way to prove it,” he says. “And nothing is to be done.”
“That's their spin on it.”
“Chuck, I'm sure it is for traditional reasons.”